Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Openings: Derrida, Differance, and the Production of Justice

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Openings: Derrida, Differance, and the Production of Justice

Article excerpt

"If you let differance have its way in ethics, you would never stop writing, because you would have to write down the names of everyone, one by one, and say what is happening to them."1 So says John Caputo who, apparently at least, has parted with Heidegger to keep company with Derrida, primarily because he believes Derrida has more ethical concern for others. Caputo argues, in fact, that the operation of differance which Derrida opens up for us is not only a playing with language, not only a linguistic operation or production, but it is an ethical operation, an ethical production. Differance is for Caputo a linguistic response to an obligation and so is the striving and maneuvering in language toward ethics and justice, the movement toward ethics and justice, not an arrival at them. For Caputo, then, deconstruction is the work of justice, which is how he makes sense of Derrida's surprising and apparently contradictory claims that although justice isn't deconstructible, presumably because it doesn't exist, still "deconstruction is justice,

Of course there are many to whom any claim by Derrida or anyone who keeps company with him that deconstruction is justice or ethics or even that it has much to do with justice or ethics would be not only surprising but downright offensive. Two extreme examples would be David Hirsch, arguing from what he terms not a postmodern but a postAuschwitz perspective, and Somer Brodribb, arguing from a feminist perspective. Hirsch, in a chapter remarkably titled "Deconstruction and the SS Connection," refers to Derrida as a "verbal puzzlemaker" and suggests that he and his fellow deconstructionists, with all their talk of erasure and undecideability and ambiguity and obscurity, "carried the self-deceptions and the moral ambiguities and duplicities of the Nazi occupation over into the post-war period and misled their readers by insisting that their nihilism was the result of rigorous philosophical deliberation instead of the residue of historical exhaustion and moral shame."3 The playing with and within language which is deconstruction has no less appeal for Brodribb. Deconstruction, she says, "is a certain masturbation with the text, playing with the terms at hand."4 It is useless for feminism, she argues, because it basically means "never having to say you're wrong. Or a feminist. Deconstruction hopes to endlessly defer feminism."5 5

These brief quotations will suffice, I hope, to exemplify the severe differences that separate those who think deconstruction is good news for ethics from those who think deconstruction is nothing but bad news, and especially bad news for all those concerned with producing a more ethical and just world. The question continues to be debated: does deconstruction help produce that more ethical and just world? One way to approach this important issue is to ask: is differance an ethical production? Can one offer arguments defending it as ethical? And when one does so, does one have to transgress against the tenets of deconstruction and betray Derrida in order to do it? Does one have to turn in one's membership card in the club of deconstruction when one performs the operation of differance as not only a linguistic but an ethical production and defends it as such?

To begin to address these very significant questions, I shall first offer an interpretation of what I refer to as the operation of differance as it has been produced and initiated by Derrida. Then I hsall discuss two attempts to demonstrate that the operation of differance is an ethical operation. The first is by J. Hillis Miller in his The Ethics of Reading and the second is the much more recent work by John Caputo. Neither of these, I will argue, does justice to the ways in which Derrida attempts to produce justice through the play of differance. I shall conclude by advancing my own interpretation of differance and of Derrida's work as an ethical production and of how they can both be defended as such. …

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